Lee: Girls Trip (2017)
Not only is Girls Trip one of the very best comedies of the decade, it’s a definitive moment in the ongoing evolution of a post-gangsta model of black civil rights. Taking its cues from the renewed interest in sisterhood comedies in the wake of Bridesmaids, screenwriters Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver present us with a premise that at first glance seems quite familiar – four friends from college meeting for a wild weekend after having gone their separate ways in the last decade. What makes Girls Trip so different from all its white forebears, however, is that these four friends aren’t unified by an upcoming wedding, but by the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, the largest single event in the United States that is devoted to black life and culture, which happens to be focusing on “black girl magic,” and the role of women in the wider black community, in the year these four friends attend.
That’s not to say that Girls Trip entirely discards the wedding subplots of its forebears either, however, since the reason that the four friends are attending in the first place is that Ryan (Regina Hall) is presenting a keynote address. For the last five years, Ryan has worked as a co-host with her husband Stewart (Mike Colter), and while they might have been married years ago, their appearance at Essence is predicted to finally catapult them into the media stratosphere, guarantee their mass appeal across Middle America, and ensure them a lucrative deal with a major media conglomerate and retail operator. In that sense, Girls Trip is as much about a wedding as Bridesmaids, Bachelorette, Rough Night or any pre-martial comedy that precedes it, with the critical difference now is that the focus is on shaping the central relationship so that it appeals to as many demographics as possible, rather than any real romance, since it’s disclosed fairly early on that Ryan and Stewart have a purely professional rapport, as much as she might long for some kind of real romantic fulfilment.
In lieu of that fulfilment from her husband, Ryan seeks solace in her three friends, and while these friendships may be initially quite fractious, they’re sustaining in the long run, partly due to the diversity and eccentricity within the group. To some extent, these three characters are types, but they’re idiosyncratic enough within that typology to clarify just how one-dimensional depictions of black womanhood on the big screen tend to be, and how confined to a small series of black woman actors who are lucky enough to make it in mainstream Hollywood. Accordingly, Girls Trip presents a kind of spectrum of black female visibility, including Queen Latifah, who plays Sasha, and is about as universally recognized as a black woman can be in Hollywood; Tiffany Hadish, a relative newcomer to top-billed roles, who plays Dina; and Jada Pinkett Smith, who plays Lisa. Each of these actors brings something different to the role, and reflects their different backgrounds, with Latifah’s depiction of Sasha as a more rational, professional and assured character drawing upon her considerable crossover appeal, and Haddish taking advantage of her relative unfamiliarity to white audiences to embrace everything about the film that is aimed squarely and exclusively at black women, with a performance of hyperbolic extroversion that wouldn’t be out of place in a Tyler Perry joint. Between them, Smith’s position at the cusp of cinematic celebrity works naturally for her depiction of Lisa, who as a divorcee and mother of three takes a bit longer than the other three women to catch up with and embrace the party vibe.
From the very outset, then, there’s a much richer charismatic ambience than you usually find in these kind of sisterhood films, partly because marriage doesn’t function as a charismatic horizon in the same way that it usually does, with no one single male character stepping in to contain or contour the four friends’ rapport with each other. That makes for a remarkably bright palette and exuberant tone, and a tribute to the resilience of black communities in New Orleans post-Katrina, as the city rallies around black women from all over the country and Ryan, Sasha, Lisa and Dina celebrate “the last day we will ever be this young.” In white films of this kind, the compulsory drunk centrepiece can often betray fascist tendencies that remain constrained by sobriety, but in Girls Trip that genre trope has a revolutionary import, as the four women drink absinthe-infused “hurricanes” and the substance and structure of the city liquefies around them at the very moment at which Ryan meets her potential investor, who chooses this exact point to scrutinise her to see if she fits the optics of what a conservative black wife entails. As the hallucinatory extravagance of the scene escalates (“We gotta go – the tsunami has hit. Repeat, the tsunami has hit.”), they replay Katrina as farce, and white condescension to black victims of Katrina as farce, to the point where even a show as well-meaning as Treme feels crude and blunt by comparison.
Certainly, Girls Night utterly outdoes Treme in the dexterity with which it incorporates musical into its visual texture, with the Essence Festival imbuing the screenplay with a rhythm that allows it to segue in and out of musical numbers, and in and out of the different technologies that mediate those musical numbers, with no real regard for the diegetic and non-diegetic parameters that structure more traditional film. In doing so, it often recalls Chris Rock’s Top Five, most memorably in an extended scene in which the four friends find themselves in an exclusive VIP area at the edge of the main stage, not exactly in the audience, but not exactly backstage either, instead occupying a supple space between venue and performance that converges when Diddy spontaneously invites one of them to dance with him. At these moments, Girls Night has a participatory feel – it’s designed for applause, foot-stamping, hand-waving – and testifies to the necessity of participatory media in envisaging a way of representing black women that isn’t enthralled to bland stereotypes.
Interestingly, however, the stereotype that Girls Night is most anxious to dismantle is that of black male virility, and the dependence of black womanhood on black male virility. No doubt, whiteness is a target here as well, but with only two white characters, one of whom is Ryan’s tone-deaf assistant Elizabeth Davelli, played by Kate Walsh, and one of whom is the investor she sets up, it’s all but taken for granted that white people can only inhabit the film in a parodic way. In fact, Girls Trip is notable for just how cursorily it deals with a trope that is often quite precious to white people watching films about black people – namely, that of a white person incompetently pretending to be black, or incompetently using black jargon. That’s the role that Elizabeth plays here, and it’s the way in which the film fast forwards and compresses her comic momentum that makes it clear, above all, that this is directed primarily at black audiences, and black female audiences in particular. If anything, Elizabeth’s efforts to inhabit blackness are less prominent than her clear attraction to Stewart, Ryan’s husband, who clearly fulfils her fantasy of what a virile black man entails, as she takes every opportunity to venerate his arms, stature and general bearing of machismo.
It’s that precisely that fantasy that Girls Trip is so keen to undo, while the fact that it is first articulated by Elizabeth suggests that the model of black gangsta masculinity that has proven so damaging to recent civil rights activism may in fact be a white construct, or a version of blackness that is designed above all to appease white audiences – both those who fetishise black virility for their own pleasure, and those for whom this ultra-machismo is a good pretext to pathologies the aspirations of black masculinity more generally. Yet that fantasy is also central to Ryan and Stewart’s media presence, since as a normative black couple they are continually shot and framed in such a way as to emphasise his towering stature and his dominant body language, with Stewart appearing to draw quite consciously on his role as an actual gangster in CBS’ The Good Wife and the blaxploitative strut of Luke Cage to evoke a caricature of black masculinity that is has pervaded both black and white media. No doubt, Stewart himself is prescient of this bind – he continually reminds Ryan that “you don’t deserve this, but it’s who we are” – but he doesn’t do much about it either.
Instead, Girls Trip compensates for Stewart’s presence by reserving its most irreverent moments for the ostensibly unassailable spectacle of black male virility, often reverting to full-blown slapstick as a necessary mechanism for insisting upon the equality, if not the primacy, of the female genitalia and female genital experience. While the film does touch upon the trope of black male endowment, then, it’s only for the sake of puncturing it, with Lisa coming home with a ludicrously well hung man only to confess that she couldn’t go through with the deed when she comes back to spend the night with her girlfriends instead. Even when she does rack up the courage to return to the same man, the incident is comically deflected into her efforts to “grapefruit” him, resulting in him getting a small amount of citric acid in his urethra and running out to the lounge room screaming in pain, where the women are greeted by his member crowned with two enormous grapefruits, in a wonderfully astringent splaying of the spectacle of black male genitalia that might be expected to form the film’s representative horizon. Conversely, one of the most buoyant and joyous scenes of the film follows the four women as they take place in a flying fox stretched over a busy New Orleans intersection, where Sasha accidentally urinates on the crowd, only for Lisa to deliberately urinate in turn, defiantly subsuming any suggestion of shame into a free-floating female genital abandon that showers the city with its jouissance.
In other words, Girls Trip refuses to concede a single inch to the kinds of macho swagger that have become so normative in depictions of black culture, especially those crafted for white audiences. For a mise-en-scene so saturated with music, it’s notable that there is virtually no hip-hop, let alone gangsta hip-hop, as the film instead immerses itself in the vast world of black sounds outside gangsta masculinity, as well as the vast world that lies outside normative depictions of black machismo. Ryan and Sasha’s friendship, in particular, is inextricable from the film’s yearnings to articulate this world, since it emerges that Sasha initially left a job at the New York Times to help Ryan set up the “first black Huffington Post,” only for Ryan to ditch her to marry Stewart and become a celebrity couple, sacrificing their shared dreams of a feminist black media for a more normative media presence anchored in the streamlined black machismo that Elizabeth, and the white audiences she represents, find so alluring. During the fallout, Sasha resorted to a career in tabloid journalism, and by the time she meets up again with Ryan at the beginning of the film she has made a name for herself with one of the most popular gossip sites on the web, building a career at the fringes of the media ecology whose epicentre has been increasingly defined by Ryan and Stewart.
In the most literal way, then, Ryan and Sasha remediate their friendship over the course of the film. The catalyst is Ryan’s discovery that Stewart has been cheating on her yet again, but that this time his tryst has been recorded, and is poised to go viral at the very moment at which they are hoping to court their investor into accepting them as American’s premium black couple. With her televisual self undermined by the prospect of these images circulating on Twitter and Instagram, Ryan turns to Sasha, who has occupied this space at the fringes of old media for several years now, and who decides that the best option is for her to release the images herself, on her own gossip site, so that Ryan can stay one step ahead of the narrative that is inevitably going to devolve around her marriage to Stewart. It’s at this point that the film’s porosity between film and music, and between diegetic and non-diegetic sound, is entirely subsumed into a wider porosity between film and other media, as if sceptical of the ways in which restricting black women to one medium risks reducing them to one way of orienting themselves with respect to black men, let alone non-black folk. Even or especially as Ryan temporarily falls back upon her misplaced attachment to Stewart by falsely accusing Sasha of having generated the pictures of his dalliance in the first place, Girls Trip strenuously advocates that black women work hard to co-opt and conquer the prostrate position in which even the most liberal media is prone to place them.
In the process, Girls Trip presents black medium as the ideal social medium for each other, yearning for a variegated media sphere that can mediate them to the world at large much as they mediate themselves through each other – or, more simply, yearning for a media sphere that is variegated enough for black women to elude the ways in which they are conventionally represented in order to mediate each other en masse, since one of the twists of the film is that Ryan becomes more popular once she breaks up with Stewart, as “it turns out that single women are an even bigger market” than the normative coupledom she was originally addressing. The beauty of Girls Trip is taking the risk of assuming – and affirming – that this audience exists in the first place, in what finally plays less as a film per se than as a tribute to the participatory power of black women on social media that situates itself at the messy cusp between a whole host of different media, promiscuously flirting with each but never quite settling into any in a sustained or systematic way. The filmtherefore forms part of a much wider trend towards what might be called “off-realism” as a black affect, as more and more black writers, directors and music video composers are showing us that the very idea of “realism” – and the strict genre and media categories that delineate it – were figments of the white imagination all along, and need to be thoroughly dismantled – sometimes dramatically, sometimes bathetically – in order to fully testify to black realness.
That makes for one of the most radical endings to a comedy in recent memory, as screenwriters Barris and Oliver refuse to bring men in at the eleventh hour to save the day, instead envisaging a media ecology in which that kind of resolution is redundant, as Ryan discards her marriage and returns to her maiden name, asking Sasha to be her business partner in lieu of any regular romantic resolution. Along the way, Girls Trip embraces both love and lust, but the final note is friendship, as Ryan observes that “We have convinced ourselves that being disrespected is better than being alone. But there’s power in being alone – power to discover our own voice.” Even or especially as the film ends with a glimmer of promise on the romantic horizon, Ryan sheds any sense that this defines her future trajectory, or that it bears any resemblance to the gangsta phallocentricsm that, in one way or another, defined the form of coupledom originally foisted upon her by the network. The result is the best kind of feel-good film – an affirmation of the power of black women to feel good, and of the importance of feeling good, beautifully remediating realism for a black female audience, that is all too often framed as surreal or unreal.
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